Serpent’s Skull Review and Retrospective, Part III

We come to the final installment of my look into what the hell we were doing for the last 27 sessions.

The final two modules of the adventure path mostly take place in the subterranean city of Ilmurea, built by the serpentfolk millennia ago in the caverns of the Darklands. Saventh-Yhi was eventually built above Ilmurea, first as a staging point for an assault upon the serpentfolk and then as a monument to the heroine Saavith, who first defeated the serpent god Ydersius.

The Thousand Fangs Below

In the fifth part, the party has just reclaimed the crystals that allow them to activate the portal to enter Ilmurea in order to find and rescue the Pathfinder Eando Kline who can tell them about the serpentfolk’s plans to resurrect Ydersius. The city of Ilmurea is an interesting place. There are a number of power groups in there. The first the party will likely stumble upon are the morlocks, who are chaotic evil but revere Eando Kline as a god, because the Pathfinder Society doesn’t come equipped with the Prime Directive. With the help of Juliver or any Pathfinders of their own, the party can leverage this to get the little bastards on their side.

Then there are the urdefhan. They’re also evil, a species of Darklands-dwellers related to daemons. They also sort of occupy a similar niche as the githyanki do in brand-name D&D and wield very strange swords with two-pronged blades, like a humongous fork. They’re scheming bastards who want the party to take out a defector who’s lairing with the serpentfolk. This is a way to get them on your side.

There are also some drow hanging about and a neothelid that the party can run into if they’re too nosy. Mine was. Curiosity killed the half-elf oracle, who was replaced by an elf fighter disguised as a half-orc.

Finally, the main event of the adventure is a serpentfolk stronghold where Eando Kline is held captive. It is a good dungeon – presents a variety of foes while remaining logical, interacts with itself and reacts to the player characters if they figure out they’re under assault. Importantly, it’s also manageable in size and length. There are also a bunch of very challenging enemies whose tactics are effective, make sense, and take all sorts of contingencies into account. The BBEG of the adventure ended up being a torturer in the deep dungeons whom the party could not take out and opted instead to flee. First time for everything.

So yeah, I like The Thousand Fangs Below. It’s not perfect, since I think it’s sort of a middle part where the entire plot is about the party doing something in order to be able to do something else instead of doing it because it must be done. To put it in terms of philosophy, their primary goal has a primarily instrumental value instead of an intrinsic value, which I think is also one of the problems in Vaults of Madness. Same goes for Sins of the Saviours in Rise of the Runelords, really. While such an adventure can be fun, I’d prefer each part of an adventure path to be more meaningful than that.

Your mileage may vary, of course. If your players are familiar with the Eando Kline stories from the first three adventure paths, they may be keen indeed on rescuing him, but for my players (and me) he was just some guy out there. Personally, I remember having read them but cannot for the life of me remember what happened. At least he’s not as annoying as Drizzt was.

Sanctum of the Serpent God

It may actually be fruitful to think of The Thousand Fangs Below and Sanctum of the Serpent God as the two halves of the same adventure. They blend together pretty well, seeing as all the really interesting stuff you get to do in The Thousand Fangs Below actually has its payback in Sanctum of the Serpent God. Befriended the morlocks? Good, you now have underground infantry for your army. Get along well with the urdefhans? You’ll have their sword. It’s time to march against some serpentfolk.

In Sanctum of the Serpent God, the party finally has enough information to know what to do and the allies to make it happen. Out of the different factions and tribes still left in Saventh-Yhi and the different power groups that are not directly hostile to them down in Ilmurea, they shall build an army, and drop the spears of Saventh-Yhi through the very bedrock of Mwangi itself, deep into the Darklands, to penetrate Ilmurea’s ceiling and give their troops a way to invade en masse. While the army draws out most of the serpentfolk from their main fortress, the party does the commando thing, goes in through a side door and takes out the officer corps, the high priest, and the god.

Well, it’s not quite that straightforward. There’s first a dungeon crawl where they take out a bunch of urdefhans and daemons to rescue a cyclops general who has spent the last ten millennia in stasis, because he’s the only one who knows what the damn spears are for. There’s also a series of assassination attempts on the party that I ended up skipping since I was rather tired of it all at this point and with the stable of one-trick ponies I had, half to three quarters of the party would have died.

The final dungeon is not quite as nifty as in The Thousand Fangs Below, but the endboss, avatar of Ydersius himself, makes up for it. He’s a legitimately tough solo adversary. Usually, a single enemy in Pathfinder RPG gets screwed over by action economy. Four heroes against one enemy means four times more actions directed against the bad guy than the bad guy can wield against the heroes. Simple math. Karzoug the Claimer, back in the 3.5 version of Rise of the Runelords, was victim to this and went down quickly. However, Ydersius is tough. He can withstand a lot of punishment, is immune to a whole lot of interesting tricks and has ways of removing heroes from the field for a few rounds at a time. The final combat was challenging and tense. At the end, the heroes triumphed and cut off the serpent god’s head, but it was close.

In Conclusion

Would I recommend the Serpent’s Skull adventure path? No. Not as the whole it is now, and not as written. Adventures two through four have a number of issues and little to make up for their flaws, The Thousand Fangs Below is uninteresting plot-wise, and at the end the whole campaign just feels like it is overstaying its welcome. Much like some its adventures feel more like ways to pass the time until the PCs are high-enough level to take on the next big adversary, the whole campaign feels like it mainly exists to be a traditional campaign between the nation-building sandbox of Kingmaker and the horror extravaganza that is Carrion Crown.

It is not, I must hasten to add, a total loss. Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv is one of the best published adventures I’ve ever seen. The campaign itself, with some heavy rewriting, can be made into a pretty great work. The potential is all there, it’s just the execution that’s wanting. Add a local Mwangi faction, perhaps as a replacement for the Free Captains (the devil are they doing inland, anyway?), squeeze The City of Seven Spears and Vaults of Madness together, add some heavier foreshadowing of Sanctum of the Serpent God into The Thousand Fangs Below to make it feel less like a keycard hunt, and you’re golden.

Of course, the amount of work involved in all that probably defeats the purpose of using a pre-written adventure path in the first place, but it is my hope that after reading this and the preceding installments, you should be equipped to decide on your own whether it’s worth it for you.

4 thoughts on “Serpent’s Skull Review and Retrospective, Part III

  1. Hullo, a player here,

    I want to, as a sort of a starting point, note that I had loads of fun at parts, particularly in parts 1-2 and 5-6. No question about it.

    In hindsight, however, much of the campaign’s glow(“oh god yes, a new AP, we get to explore Mwangi! Bring my shoggoth gun!”, etc) was temporarily dimmed and is still overshadowed by the narrative cul-de-sac that the 3rd module, City of Seven Spears, ended up being. I just can’t repeat this enough: Don’t screw up climaxes, Paizo.

    We were hyped to all hell about that city, but instead of meeting glory and riches, there was a only a weird mix of minesweeper and Settlers to struggle through. It could have been Unknown Kadath or El Dorado or a Haggardian paradise of gold. Something that left us in awe. Xin-Shalast did. What we found instead left us sighing and just methodically exterminating the locals.

    Please, next time you publish a similar bunch of adventures have less Cortez, and more Quartermain or Randolph Carter, The players and GMs will both thank you.

    -J. Hukka

  2. I know this article is a little old, but I enjoyed reading it (and your Rise of the Runelords restrospectives) quite a bit, so I thought I’d leave my impressions on the campaign.

    My group played through part 1 and most of part 2 before getting bored and deciding to quit. I later joined another group that was in the middle of part 4, and I played with them through the end of the campaign.

    Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv was fantastic; possibly the best “lost on a deserted island” scenario I’ve ever played. Everybody had lots of fun.

    The rest of the campaign was trash. It was easily the worst published campaign I’ve seen from Paizo. I didn’t even have the small amount of fun you did with the later parts; our good-inclined group was constantly chafing at feeling like we were forced to ally with evil groups like the morlocks, urdafhan, vegepygmies, drow, and so on. The Pathfinder Society is probably the “nicest” group you get to meet, and they’re still morally ambiguous at times.

    Most of the encounters felt very samey. Generally a group of urdafhan or serpentfolk with one tougher enemy accompanying them. Everybody makes their saving throws against Dominate (boy, the authors of these modules loved Dominate) and then kills them all. Then we pick up a handful of +1 weapons that we sell for a pittance. By the way, treasure in the campaign was also terrible — the characters who had been around since the beginning were practically penniless compared to me who joined with standard wealth by level, and it stayed that way until the end of the campaign.

    The last boss was also a huge letdown. First round: the party’s two ranged attackers get initiative and unload on it. It tries to do something, we resist it for minor damage. Second round, the ranged attackers turn it into a pile of goo. Campaign is over.

    Our GM probably could have done a lot of work to improve it, but as written, the entire campaign was a huge letdown. Personally, I’d recommend running Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv as either a one-shot module or as a launching point for a homebrew campaign. Don’t use the rest of them at all (except perhaps as a source of maps and NPC stat blocks).

  3. I’m glad people are still finding these useful and interesting.

    Our experiences are rather similar, except for the avatar of Ydersius. At my table, he was a genuine threat and lasted for several rounds. I don’t remember if he was ever close to killing anyone, but he did remove the party’s healbot cleric from the equation for the first half of the fight.

    Of course, at high levels a lot depends on party composition, tactics and just plain luck. One of the reasons that the next AP I’m running will be Jade Regent utilizing the 7th Sea and Legend of the Five Rings rulesets.

  4. Pingback: Adventure Quarterly, Issue #2 from Rite Publishing [Review] | Gamerati

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